Beyond four walls

27 Mar 2021

Straits Times, 27 Mar 2021, Beyond four walls
One of Singapore's latest urban planning stories is unfolding in the Housing Board waterfront town of Punggol.

In an exclusive interview, former HDB chief executive Cheong Koon Hean tells The Straits Times that Punggol Northshore, the island's first smart-enabled precinct, is also a "living laboratory" which will help the statutory board improve living conditions for home owners, as well as prepare for uncertainties in the future.

"At first, we developed the Roadmap To Better Living In HDB Towns in 2011. It was focused on better-designed flats which are part of community-centred towns and which are also sustainable," says Dr Cheong, 64, who helmed HDB from 2010 to last year, overseeing the development and management of more than a million flats.

"With the launch of a smart precinct like Northshore, we can add technology and innovation into the mix. This will be implemented in phases in other HDB towns as well."

Dr Cheong is currently chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities. In June, she will also become chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

HDB now has a new road map, Designing for Life.

Dr Cheong says the road map, launched in October last year, will guide the design and planning of public-housing towns for the next decade through three pillars: live well, live smart and live connected.

Upcoming estates will have features such as electric vehicle-ready carparks, predictive smart LED lighting in common areas, and smart pneumatic waste conveyance systems which pipe household waste into an enclosed underground network leading to a centralised bin centre.

Public housing will also adopt a more holistic approach to residents' health and wellness through design.

Dr Cheong - a Colombo Plan scholar who studied architecture in Australia and holds a master's degree in urban development planning from London's University College - introduced a new generation of public housing during her tenure at HDB.

Under her leadership, HDB implemented large-scale sustainability as well as biophilic and smart features in public-housing towns.

Before HDB, she was chief executive of the Urban Redevelopment Authority for six years, where she was tasked with strategic land use planning, conservation of built heritage and building a vibrant city.

She also played a key role in the transformation of Marina Bay.


In the 2011 road map, the ideas for Punggol were driven by three key design approaches: well-designed; sustainable and smart; and community-centric. These, Dr Cheong believes, will help lay the groundwork for the future of Singapore's public housing.

"Today, public housing is going beyond the four walls," she says. "HDB is not only building flats, but also creating an immersive experience that brings the community together in a complete living environment.

"People started calling Punggol - where many water bodies weave through the estate - a 'Venice of the East'."

Punggol is also home to rain gardens and abundant greenery that merge with the built environment, drawing people out of their flats to enjoy the outdoors.

At the heart of the town is Oasis Terraces, an integrated development that houses a sheltered community plaza, communal gardens and healthcare facilities such as Punggol Polyclinic; as well as spaces for play, retail, dining and learning.

"This approach to public housing design transforms the 'void deck'," Dr Cheong says with a laugh. "The new experience is centred on HDB's community of home owners coming together with shared living experiences, so public communal spaces become what I like to call 'community living rooms'."

She adds: "When I joined HDB, there was a huge demand for housing and we had to ramp up supply by about three times.

"But we didn't want to produce more of the same. So, on top of what we were already doing, we also focused on creating unique identities for our towns."

For Punggol, which today has about 50,000 flats, water was a key differentiating factor.

"We created a river by joining Sungei Punggol and Sungei Serangoon for a waterway, which is also designed as a linear park," she says.

HDB worked with government agencies such as PUB and the National Parks Board to create the 4.2km Punggol Waterway, Singapore's longest man-made waterway. Meandering through the town, it brings waterfront living, flora and fauna - such as butterflies and singing birds - right to the doorsteps of more than 180,000 residents.

Other estates being developed with unique identities are Bidadari and Tengah.

Dr Cheong says: "A common misconception was that Bidadari had always just been a cemetery.

"When it is completed in a few years' time, you will see its unique urban design, which is inspired by its history and heritage, dating back to the time when the Sultan of Johor had a palace there."

Bidadari, which means "angel" in Malay, is from the Sanskrit word "widyadari", referring to "an angelic being" in Hindu mythology.

It is believed that the area was named after the nymph-like beauty of Che Puan Besar Zubaidah, formerly known as Ms Cecilia Catharina Lange, the second wife of Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor, who bought the 18ha estate for her in the mid-1860s.

In 1929, Arab merchant Syed Abdul Rahman Shaikh Alkaff, who owned a 10ha site in Bidadari estate, built Alkaff Lake Garden, a man-made Japanese garden with bridges and pavilions.

It was open to the public from the 1930s until before World War II, attracting visitors for boating and family outings.

Bidadari's park was also a stopover for migratory birds, says Dr Cheong.

"HDB took inspiration from the estate's rustic past and carved out a new identity as a green urban sanctuary for wildlife, which includes a lake."

As for the upcoming 700ha Tengah estate, it has been conceived as Singapore's first "forest town", where HDB will create nature-centric neighbourhoods for residents to connect with nature and enjoy its benefits.

Dr Cheong says: "In the built-up areas, instead of small allotment gardens, we are setting aside large swathes of land between the housing blocks, so home owners can cultivate urban farms and enjoy farm-to-table meals with their families, or the outdoors with their neighbours."

Looking back on her decade at HDB, Dr Cheong feels accomplished in having been able to contribute to building Singapore, one HDB town at a time.

"As a city planner, you have to wait 30 years before you can see your work take shape - unlike an architect who is able to finish a building in two to three years. With limited land, I have had to be both a juggler and an illusionist," she says.

"My teams and I juggled urgent needs such as affordable housing, sustainable practices and safety against future pandemics.

"We also had to think like illusionists when we created an illusion of space - such as the Park Connector Network which links smaller green areas into a massive green lung for the whole island."

She is already seeing the fruits of HDB's labour.

"I have seen hornbills, parakeets, sunbirds and butterflies return to HDB estates."

Infrastructure aside, she says residents still have to play their part, such as by exercising more at the newly created parks, reducing household waste and keeping the communal areas clean.

"Green towns need 'green' people."

Singapore's public housing through the decades
The Housing & Development Board (HDB) was formed on Feb 1, 1960, after Singapore attained self-governance in 1959 and was tasked with addressing a severe housing shortage. Its predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) under the British colonial government, had completed 23,000 flats from 1927 to 1959.

HDB built more than 500,000 flats, as well as facilities such as wet markets and mosaic playgrounds, in its first 25 years. Today, it has built more than a million flats, which house more than 80 per cent of Singapore's population.

The Straits Times takes a look at HDB flats' evolving designs over the years.

1. 1960s: Functional and low-cost

Early blueprints of flats focused on providing basic housing at a low cost. HDB wanted to house as many people as possible within the shortest time. The blocks of mainly rental flats were built close to wet markets, schools and playgrounds.

2. 1970s: Neighbourhood concept

By 1965, HDB had built about 55,000 flats across the island. The urgent housing crisis had been largely resolved by the end of the 1960s.

From the 1970s, HDB began to experiment with different designs for flats and precincts. It conceptualised a town centre surrounded by neighbourhoods.

Blocks were designed to make the most of the lay of the land, such as slopes and bends.

Besides rectangular slabs, new blocks took on other forms such as L and Y shapes, as well as 20-storey point blocks.

At Stirling View - located in Queenstown, Singapore's first satellite town - a curved block of flats shaped like a butterfly's wings is part of several designs that have since become iconic.

3. 1980s to 1990s: Towns with distinct identities

As Singaporeans became more affluent, demand grew for larger flats such as four-and five-room units.

HDB set a target for a quality housing environment which continued into the 1980s and 1990s, with an emphasis on strengthening town identity through the precinct concept.

Each precinct of about 600 to 800 units was clustered around shared facilities such as open spaces and commercial entities.

Executive apartments and maisonettes - or double-storey apartments - were introduced.

By the end of the 1980s, more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans were HDB home owners.

In 1999, the first executive condominiums were introduced at Eastvale in Pasir Ris.

4. 2000s: Scaling heights

HDB introduced more flat types such as Build-To-Order (BTO) and Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) options.

For BTO flats such as the Pinnacle @ Duxton, construction starts only when 65 to 70 per cent of the units have been booked. They come in two-to five-room units and studio flats.

Meanwhile, DBSS flats such as The Peak in Toa Payoh are developed in collaboration with the private sector.

In response to residents' desire for greater privacy, HDB also built more flats with non-corridor views, instead of those with windows opening into the corridor.

5. 2010 to 2020s: Designing for the future

HDB is placing the holistic well-being of its residents at the centre of its planning efforts with a road map, Designing for Life, launched in October last year.

The emphasis will be on more biophilic or nature-based urban areas to create a sense of wellness for residents, and technology-enabled homes where residents can track their energy use and contribute to sustainable living.

There will also be more public spaces where people can mingle and bond, as well as enjoy easy access to fitness amenities and playgrounds for multi-generational families, where parents can exercise while grandparents play with the little ones.

Heartland lifestyle hubs will incorporate malls that are near MRT stations and bus stops, with easy access to neighbourhood polyclinics.